Do sleep consultants work? parenting advice from Care and Feeding.

Pamela G. Knowles

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Our seven-month-old baby is not a good sleeper. His “awake windows” are short and his naps are inconsistent, but often only 30 minutes long. Recently, he’s slept okay the first part of the night but is awake at 12:30, sometime between 2 and 3, again at 4ish, and finally between 5 and 5:30—and the only way he can get him to go back to sleep at that point to our still-too-early-but-okay wake-up time of 6:30 is by co-sleeping with him (and yes, we know, we shouldn’t have him in our bed, but sleep deprivation can be deadly too!). He’s chronically exhausted, and so are we—especially since we’re both still working from home, with no childcare yet and no family nearby. My question is: Is the vast how-to-get-your-baby-to-sleep industry legit, or if my exhausted husband and I give in and contact a consultant, are we just falling victims to a (maybe well intentioned, but very expensive) scam?

He and I have been having a bit of an argument on the subject. I feel that so-called women’s knowledge about things like baby sleep has traditionally been scoffed at and ignored, and if these folks have expertise to share and can make a living from it, good for them. He’s concerned sleep consultants are, at best, as clueless as we are, and at worst, scam artists looking to capitalize off of sleep-deprived, desperate parents. If the answer is, as I suspect, all of the above, are there ways to distinguish good actors from bad? Are any of the accreditation programs worthwhile?

—Tired and Helpless

Dear T&H,

OK, I try not to share personal anecdotes here because every family is so different and there are so many variables, but maybe hearing about my experience will be helpful to you.

When my older son wasn’t sleeping, I was lucky to find a sleep consultant who was also a licensed psychologist, so her visits were partially covered by our insurance.  This might be an option for you, too, but if it’s not available in your area, I think you’re right to be wary of paying to consult someone whose accreditation seems sketchy or whose services are only available virtually. One of the most helpful things our sleep consultant did was come to our apartment and look at the sleeping arrangements and suggest some physical adjustments to our space. The other helpful thing she did was listen to us and affirm what we were going through. Hearing a description of our “bedtime routine” spoken out loud (or written down) was a helpful tool in countenancing exactly how far we had strayed from the path of anything like a sane schedule, and how much we were letting our baby completely run the show. Hiring the consultant made us accountable to an outside party for what we were doing (and not doing) in order to get our baby and ourselves more sleep. Regardless of a therapist’s expertise, it seems to me that this lattermost function is actually the main point, and that’s what the money is for: creating a relationship to someone outside the situation who will keep you on track and measure your progress. So for us, that was worth it (“it” being about $350, in this case), but your mileage may vary.

If you decide to consider one, do a bit of research. Think about what you’re looking for (do you want your kids to cry it out, do you want to continue to co-sleep), so that if you choose to hire someone, you can find someone who’s a good match for your parenting philosophy. Talk to friends and ask on neighborhood listservs about others’ experience with local consultants. You may wind up feeling that a book can serve you just as well, but as you already know, you certainly won’t be alone if you decide that having “professional” support you may bring a small amount of peace.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Can you help my husband and me solve the dessert debacle currently raging in our home? We have two children; my older son just started pre-K and has now had playdates in homes where dessert is a nightly affair. Until now, we only had dessert on Friday nights and all was well. But now he whines about it every night. My husband and I share dinner duty (he works odd hours and is only home for dinner 3-4 nights per week), so it’s been hard to determine one dinner/dessert routine for the family. I think dessert once a week is sufficient, plus dessert when we’re at someone else’s home or on special occasions. My husband thinks I’m making it seem even more attractive by treating it like the “forbidden fruit”—which will only make our kids overindulge when they’re not at our home for dinner. I will also honestly say I struggle with some body image issues and I’m not sure whether this is affecting my perspective. At any rate, how many times should kids eat dessert per week, and once we decide, how can I get my husband on-board with creating a united front for our kids?

—Dessert Debacle

Dear DD,

Your husband is onto something when he suggests that limiting access to dessert, or any food, is going to backfire, either in the way he suggests or just by making everyone fixate on its unavailability even more. In an ideal world, dessert would be a delightful something extra that flits in and out of our kids’ lives, welcome when it’s there and not missed or demanded when it’s not, but it’s easy for it to become something else entirely: a bargaining chip, a stage for a power struggle, a measuring stick for sibling competition (“her piece is bigger than mine!”). Some of this has to do with desire and hunger, but some of it is kids finding ways to engage in power struggles as they test the boundaries of their world.

So on a practical level, what to do about dessert? Getting on the same page is going to require both of you to compromise. Everyone in the family has different bodies and different appetites, and the goal of feeding kids is to get them to listen to theirs and think about how different foods make them feel. You could experiment with loosening up on the Fridays-only system temporarily and see if anything changes, in either negative or positive ways. It’s not about how often kids “should” eat dessert, but about what’s right for you and your family, and even that is constantly shifting.  You’ll know you’re getting it right when it feels to everyone like food is just food— something to enjoy rather than stress out about. Easier said than done, I know!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband’s sister and her estranged husband have a dysfunctional, messy relationship, and unfortunately, their approach to parenting their three children is also dysfunctional and messy. Nothing that would officially classify as abuse, but it is heartbreaking for us to watch as their elementary-school-aged kids act out and develop some really unhealthy and bad habits in response to inconsistent boundaries and emotional neglect. My husband’s parents live near them and assist with some babysitting, but my husband and I live five hours away. I feel so bad for the kids and honestly, wish I could swoop in and bring them to live with me—but I know that’s not my place.

My solution has been to invite them to each spend a week or two of their summer vacation with us. Their parents allow these visits, and this will be the second summer we have them stay over. On these visits, I treat them as my own children, and we fill these visits with reading, fun family activities, and full nights’ sleep. I even give them “chore charts” when they’re here so they can earn a little allowance, just like my children do. (My nephews and nieces are in elementary school, and have so far been enthusiastic about the small chores they’re assigned while here.) Part of me worries I’m overstepping my boundaries with these summer visits, but part of me feels I’m not doing enough for these kids, whose mom and dad have largely checked out of parenting. What advice do you have for me? How can I support my niece and nephews?

—Absent Aunt

Dear Absent Aunt,

These children are lucky to have you in their lives. Let me qualify all of what I’m saying here by stating that this is under the assumption that these kids are not being abused (if you need more information on how to identify signs of child abuse and neglect, see this resource). While it’s wonderful that you are part of your niece and nephews’ lives, it’s important to keep your expectations for their visit realistic. It’s also important to respect that, while you don’t agree with your sister’s parenting choices, she is their mother, not you. I’m not sure exactly what you mean when you say that you treat them as your own children, but it worries me. You must treat them as your niece and nephews, not potential additions to your family should you ever be permitted (or required) to adopt them. Worst-case scenario, the stark difference between the amount of structure you impose and their family’s style could ultimately end up pushing them away, especially as they get older. Keep your home a nonjudgmental place of refuge for them, and make sure they know your door is always open, but resist the temptation to speak ill of your sister or her husband. Your role is to be their aunt, and it sounds like you’re doing a great job. Support your sister in any attempts at being a better parent she might undertake on her own, and communicate with this family as much as you can because you love them and want to help, not because you know you could raise those kids better.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a positive but not terribly close relationship with my sister-in-law, Allie, and a solid role as the cool aunt in the lives of my niece Eloise (13) and nephew Adam (7). The two kids slept in the same room by choice for much of Eloise’s childhood (despite technically having their own rooms), a trend Eloise may have started due to a fear of the dark when she was much younger. Now that she’s in middle school, she doesn’t want to share her room with her younger brother anymore, which seems reasonable to me! However, Allie will tell Eloise that it’s her fault Adam still wants to sleep there, and encourage her to go along with it just to keep Adam happy. This conversation played out in front of me the other day, and it clearly wasn’t the first time.

I’m really uncomfortable that Eloise is asking her mother for backup so that she can have a reasonable amount of privacy and getting nowhere. I’m also concerned about the message this sends about consent to BOTH kids. Eloise is hearing the message that she’s not allowed to change her mind, and she’s not allowed to refuse an invader to her physical space, while Adam is learning that he can have whatever he wants if he cries hard enough about it. I said something to Eloise herself in the moment (i.e. “you are allowed to choose who comes in your room and you are allowed to change your mind about it anytime you want”), but I want to address it with Allie so that the boundary stays enforced. How can I bring this up without sounding super judgmental and reactionary?

—Autonomy Auntie

Dear AA,

Where is your brother in all this? Without knowing what role, if any, he plays in your family, it’s hard to know how to answer this question, but I’ll give it a try.

You can, and should, tell Allie about the conversation you had with Eloise about Adam sleeping in her room, but not because that’s how the “boundary stays enforced.”  You are way out of line in trying to make this kind of change stick in someone else’s household. Even though, based on the way you’ve described things, it seems totally reasonable for Eloise to want her own room back, there might be any number of other factors going into your sister-in-law’s decisions that you know nothing about, because you’re not those kids’ parent.

You should have talked to Allie first before butting in, but now that that’s no longer an option, you should approach the topic as open-mindedly as possible. “Eloise has been telling me about wanting her own room now, and she seems really upset. Tell me more about what’s going on?” Don’t bring up consent or concerns about Eloise’s privacy right off the bat. If you really want what’s best for your niece, and not just to be in the right, you’ll treat your relationship with Allie with more care in the future so that you can keep being their “cool aunt” and not “an aunt they see very infrequently.”

—Emily

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